U.S. Supreme Court Deciding Grants Pass Homeless Case

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In Grants Pass V. Johnson, lawyer Theane Evangelis made opening arguments.  “In 35 suits and counting, federal courts are now deciding everything from the exact size of campsites in San Rafael to the adequacy of empty beds at specific shelters like the Gospel rescue mission in Grants Pass.  And cities are struggling to apply arbitrary shifting standards.”

The city is defending penalties for outdoor camping. “Like cities nationwide, Grants Pass relies on camping laws to protect its public spaces. These generally applicable laws prohibit specific conduct and are essential to public health and safety.”

The U.S. Supreme Court justices’ questions, started with Clarence Thomas.  “Which party has been held accountable for criminal trespass?”  “None of the individuals who are currently in the case.” “What will the city do if you don’t prevail here?” ” The city’s hands will be tied. It will be forced to surrender its public spaces.”

It’s a closely watched case that could shape policies and laws in cities throughout the country.  Much of the focus is about whether Grants Pass’ laws punish the conduct of sleeping outside in public, and not the status of being homeless.  Evangelis told the court, “It is harmful for people to be living in public spaces on streets and in parks, whatever bedding materials when humans are living in those conditions, we think that that’s not compassionate.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “It’s not, but neither is providing them with nothing.”  Evangelis responded, “This is a difficult policy question, Justice Sotomayor. It is.”  The justice asked,  “Where do we put them if every city, every village, every town lacks compassion and passes a law identical to this. Where are they supposed to sleep? Are they supposed to kill themselves not sleeping?”  Evangelis said, ” A necessity defense, under Oregon law is available.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the debate. “How does this law help deal with the complicated policy issues?”  Evangelis responded, “One of the most difficult challenges is getting people the help that they need and laws like this allow cities to intervene. ”

The justices will cast tentative votes at a private conference in the coming days. The senior justice in the majority will write the opinion or assign it to a colleague. Other justices are likely to write concurrences or dissents. It could be late June before they decide the case.

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